ABC is betting big on Shonda Rhimes

While CBS airs football games on Thursday nights, ABC is hoping all the not-so-sports-inclined spouses settle in for a night of Shonda Rhimes.

Don’t know the name? Rhimes created "Grey’s Anatomy" and "Scandal." The two TV shows have been bright spots for a network that’s had a rough couple of years when it comes to prime time, says Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate.

“Last year, they were last in adults 18–49. But when it came to women 18–49, they were second,” Adgate says.

Shonda Rhimes is credited, in large part, for that success. She's a creator and showrunner who champions strong female leads and a diverse cast. Adgate says that formula appeals to women, who now make up about 65 percent of the network’s audience. With network ratings sliding, he says, it’s not surprising that ABC would double down on its niche success.

So the network is promoting Rhimes to its audience. An advertisement for the Thursday night lineup edits together dialogue from each show to make the characters say "I love Shonda Rhimes."

Cynthia Littleton, TV editor at Variety, says while there have been powerful showrunners in the past, this may be the first time a network promoted one as a star.

“This branding and the three shows stacked on one night,” Littleton says. “That is absolutely a function of social media and how it has turned Shonda Rhimes literally into a marketable star for the network.”

Littleton says Rhimes was also masterful in using Twitter to promote shows and make herself a star with viewers.

But will this branding work?

“Network TV these days is a game of trying to do better than you did last year, which is hard to do,” says Joe Adalian, an editor with Vulture.

Adalian said by that measure, ABC’s Thursday strategy will work. The night is already filled with two hit shows, and with Rhimes' star status, the third has a good chance of becoming one, too.


Shonda Rhimes didn't initially set out to be a television writer, much less one of the industry's most powerful showrunners. According to a New York Times profile from last year, Rhimes decided to apply to USC's film school after graduating from Dartmouth because she read that it was more competitive than Harvard Law.

Rhimes got in, graduated, and initially broke through as a writer for HBO's Dorothy Dandridge biopic, starring Halle Berry. She went on to write Britney Spears' acting debut, "Crossroads," which was critically panned but a box office hit. She scored her first Disney credit with "The Princess Diaries 2" and sold "Grey's Anatomy" to the Disney-owned ABC around the same time.

"Grey's" was a midseason replacement but an instant hit, prompting a Rhimes-lead spinoff in 2007 that lasted six seasons. Broadcast TV is crowded with medical shows, but Rhimes' series distinguished themselves and became a cultural touchstone. Just ask the many, many people who tossed around nicknames like "McDreamy," "McSteamy," etc. in the late 2000s.

In 2013, Rhimes' shows were pulling in $300 million in advertising each season, Forbes reported, or about 5 percent of ABC's revenue. Since "Grey's" premiered, she has adopted two children, who, the Times wrote, regularly come to work with her.

After cementing her place at ABC with two hits, Rhimes created "Scandal," which she told the Times is her most unfiltered project, uninhibited by network notes, and appropriately insane and melodramatic.

"What were they going to do, fire me? I wasn't worried about what anybody else thought," she told the Times. "This one was for me."

Rhimes has said she doesn't want to be pigeonholed into a certain type of show. So, she's branching into another crowded space — the legal drama — with "How to Get Away With Murder," starring Viola Davis as a law professor who becomes embroiled in a homicide with four of her students. The show will follow "Scandal" to round out ABC's three-hour Rhimes block.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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